Adam Wright
(Thursday) 1.3.13

Are the Santa Ana Winds Starting to Weaken for Some Socal Areas?

Greg Asked: My favorite sessions have been the product of Santa Ana winds blowing the beachies of Newport and Huntington into perfection. The past two days I have woken up to relative Santa Ana conditions, 15-20 mph east winds but then I check the cams, as us inlanders are forced to do, only to find the winds are slack or even slightly onshore at the beach… So what’s up with that? Does it need to be 30-40 to reach the beach? And did we completely get screwed this year with the lack of classic Santa Ana conditions?

Adam Wright – Solspot Forecaster:

Hey Greg,

It has been a weird year for winds hasn’t it? In fact we have seen a few strange years in a row when you stack them up.

I grew up in OC as well (in Irvine of all places) and it seemed like the Santa Ana winds raged during the fall/early winter. I remember rigging my old bones-brigade skateboards with makeshift sails out of bed sheets and industrial plastic so we could haul ass down our street when the winds were super gnarly…of course I lived on a culdesac so the stopping part was always a bit dramatic (I am sure the head injuries didn’t mess me up that much). Not sure if that was just my memory as a young kid twisting those devil winds way out of proportion or if the nature of the Santa Ana wind events have just changed due to the increase in population, urban sprawl, lack of open wind paths…you know the usual stuff you get when you add several million people to an area over the course of 30+ years.

Of course you have to take into account things like Global warming, el nino/la nina, and a million years of dominant weather patterns that we weren’t around to document…for all we know the Santa Anas could be a blip in the geographic timescale that will gradually get ironed out over the next 1000 years.

No matter what the cause (which is probably a cumulative mix of human and mother nature slowly changing) there has definitely been a shift in the number, time of year, and strength of the Santa Ana events, over the past couple of decades. Lots of people, like yourself, have noticed it…and to be honest there may not really be a hard and fast answer…the last couple of years sucked for North OC Santa Ana-wise but remember the years before (2009-2010) where they were blowing the fires and ash over the Saddleback mountains, about to tear through Ladera Ranch and even parts of Tustin and Yorba Linda. Hell you could barely get into waves on those days the wind was blowing so hard.

To finally stop rambling and answer your question…In terms of the pattern you just described, where you see the 10-20 knot gusty NE winds in Orange, but not at the beach, is a pretty consistent phenomenon…and it seems to affect North Orange County a bit more than the other Socal surf regions. There are many mornings where Santa Barbara, Ventura, LA, South OC, and San Diego are all blowing offshore while North OC is basically calm and variable.

Some of this is due to geography…if you look at almost all of the other coastal regions there are some mini coastal hills, sometimes backed by bigger chunks of Coastal Mountains (like Santa Barbara/Ventura/North LA for example). The ranges in the other regions let cold air cascade down the slopes, establishing wind fields, and air (like water) has a tendency to follow the path of least resistance so those winds just intensify if the local air-pressure is either capped by a big dome of high pressure, or set up to bend the gradient the right way, which in this case is usually offshore.

In comparison North OC is basically a big flat floodplain, with some hilly sections in Costa Mesa…you don’t see the steeper vertical coastal land-forms till you Corona Del Mar and Laguna Beach. In HB and Newport the first inland rise you really see starts around Tustin and Yorba Linda (as you head out to riverside). So we get screwed by the lack of hills right off the bat.

Another addition obstacle…is that we get some airflow blockage from Palos Verdes, which happens when the winds are more NE-NNE, they sort of swirl around that rise and create “a micro eddy” (for a better term) right over Seal Beach down through Newport, diffusing the winds moving the region and shaving off most if not all of the speed. Heck on particularly bad days I have seen them spin the winds all the way back around onshore.

The other issue is the temperature difference that we get between land and sea…the colder the over-land areas get the more of a chance you have to see the offshore (land-breeze) winds maintain speeds. This is more of a man-made problem. As we have built over the open lands (or at least the vegetation of agriculture areas) it has changed the dynamics of how fast things warm and cool off. Trees and fields have a tendency to warm up more slowly than black asphalt, metal, and the other crap we build our infrastructure out of…so the second the sun clears the horizon all of these things start to heat up, creating a thermal low-pressure over the surface of the land, which will at minimum stall out the winds or at worst start to drag in the onshore sea-breeze to try and fill that vacuum.

For us blessed (or cursed) the North OC area, I do think we have to change our thinking about the Santa Anas…and you hit the nail right on the head…we can’t expect mild-moderate NE winds over the inland areas to have a big impact on the actual surf-zone conditions…yes they could knock down the onshore breeze, but I think the days of gusty offshores with those sort of inland wind speeds are pretty much gone.

Nowadays I think that we need the 25-40 knot winds blowing NE-NNE through the inland areas to make a significant impact on our coastal winds…though we might be able to shave a few knots off those speeds if the winds are blowing more consistently out of the E-ENE since we don’t get the worst part of the PV effect when the winds are more easterly.

Anyway I hope this makes sense…it basically boils down to the wind intensity…if it is blowing up around those 25-40 knots inland then you can expect more of an “offshore” impact along the North OC beaches.

P.S. I know it has been a bit of a bad 2012-2013 season…but I wouldn’t count the Santa Ana’s completely out…there is still a chance at some late season winds that could swing through before the end of the winter…particularly if things stay as cold as they have and high-pressure get pushed around into the right spot.

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  • https://stacksocial.com/ Stefan Wrobel

    Thanks, Adam, I was wondering this exact same thing!

  • stephent

    Excellent answer! Learned a ton, thanks

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